When You’re a Trade Unionist, You Don’t Believe in Fatality

When You’re a Trade Unionist, You Don’t Believe in Fatality

Agora #91
12 - 16

"My main motivation was to fight against all injustices, collective and personal, to defend those who can't do it themselves and to speak up for them"

It’s 2024 and USF is celebrating its 50th anniversary. I’ve been a member, through the USB, for around 30 years, I’ve actively devoted 15 years of my life to it and I’ve been its President… so little time in fact that it would be difficult for me to claim to have left an imperishable mark on our union.

As president, I tried to follow in the footsteps of Giovanni Sergio, my friend and mentor, who was the first to trust me among the “chefs” who recruited me, who pushed me towards the presidency and supported me from afar. I can’t talk about my presidency without paying tribute to him. Giovanni, who started out as a simple “usher”, went through all the categories thanks to the system of internal competitions and to his own will; his great culture, his infallible memory, his benevolence and his sense of diplomacy were invaluable assets for our union, both in dealing with the administration and in managing the internal quarrels that never fail to occur in a large organization with so many different branches, and bringing USF into a grouped formation in negotiations. Thank you Giovanni.

I was asked to focus my article on the theme of gender equality: I have to say that this initially irritated me: why assume that I’d taken a particular interest in the issue – because I’m the only woman to have been elected President so far? Well, no, I haven’t done anything special for the cause of women.

Nothing deliberate, at least. If you think about it, I think it’s simply my background that may have changed the union’s attitude towards female managers, not only because I may have had the right profile, but also because it was the right time.

You could say that I started at US with, in the eyes of its main leaders, a double handicap: I was a woman and I was a former translator. In either case, I was a bit of an outsider, too much… and not enough… and initially recruited as a junior member of the local personnel committee. But it was the right time for me: the early 2000s were marked, on the one hand, by the rise of the fashionable theme of “equal opportunities” and, on the other, by the widespread use of English in the internal communication of institutions, which until then had been very French-speaking. So I quickly became very useful for translating our leaflets and documents, and for ensuring the “women’s” quota in negotiations and various meetings with the administration.

If, at that time, I had devoted time and energy to protesting against “we’re taking Sylvie on the delegation because she’s a woman”, I don’t think I would have been able to progress up the union ladder. Before joining the Commission, before arriving at US, I had already experienced the ordinary, residual machismo that consisted of looking down on the few women working in an essentially male professional environment. I got away with it every time by showing what I was capable of and getting recognition for my skills. Yes, undoubtedly, the chance to be taken for a test drive and to prove myself up to the task. The twofold handicap I’ve mentioned should not obscure the fact that I was offered a secondment, and it was this decision at the outset that enabled me to reach the presidency in the end. But the rest was up to me, and I’m convinced that I had no more or less difficulty than a man would have had.

But, I don’t let anyone tell me that feminism is a futile struggle. It’s a struggle whose victories have been marked by sacrifice and suffering. But it began in the middle of the 19th century, and there’s no denying all the progress made since then, by people other than me. In institutions, I’ve met a few resolutely phallocratic old crones in the course of my career. I’ve also heard rumours about the ” couch promotions ” of certain CEOs, rumours that demonstrated a refusal to believe that women could succeed, just like men, based on their professional merit, their address books or their aptitude for servility and corruption.

But basically, the evolution had already begun when I arrived at the Commission, and today the European institutions are not a professional environment where you have to fight to be recognized, or at any rate, no more than a man. In the trade unions themselves, I wasn’t the only woman to achieve roles of responsibility. Let’s not forget to pay tribute to Arlette Grynberg, who was president of the USB long before I arrived, at a time when it was truly exceptional. Even if I was the only woman president during my years in office, the demographic trend in our institutions is in favour of a growing number of motivated women in the unions.

When people talk to me about feminism and gender equality, I can’t help but think of the current President of the Commission: seeing a woman like Mrs van der Leyen at the head of a major institution means that our institutions have achieved equal opportunities, for better or for worse. In the same way, I don’t think I’ve made any difference between the men and women I’ve worked with in the union, and the feedback I’ve had seems balanced: the same proportion of successes and disappointments, the same ability for some to devote themselves to the union, for others to pursue titles and shun work.

So, during my union career, I was more interested in the “little fellows” than in the cause of women. My main motivation as a staff representative was to fight against all injustices, collective and personal, to defend those who can’t do it themselves and to speak up for them. I began by working with nursery staff when US was the only union to take an interest. I studied the phenomenon of harassment in the workplace, negotiated an internal Commission decision on the issue when it has to be said, union leaders at the time tended to regard it as a non-issue, and trained myself as a trusted person to help colleagues who felt harassed – before the administration excluded staff representatives from the network on vague pretexts, because they were too inclined to “make waves”…

Within the federal structure, this same desire for justice for all led me to take an interest in our more “peripheral” organizations. In the early 2000s, everything was decided in Brussels – I’d even go so far as to say that everything was negotiated at the Commission in Brussels. The Commission section was the biggest at USB, the Commission was the most represented institution at USF, USF was the biggest union in the institutions: the temptation was great, as USB-Commission-Brussels, to see ourselves as the salt of the union earth, and many couldn’t resist it. I don’t claim to have escaped this temptation entirely, but I do claim to have been aware of it, and to have worked to the best of my ability to help the “smaller” members of USF gain recognition and have the issues that mattered most to them taken into account.

In pursuing this goal, I certainly made a few mistakes along the way. I supported what some people like to present as a failed coup attempt at the USB, which led to the creation of the unions Unité syndicale at the EESC and U4U at the Commission. I regret the method and the consequences, but I stand by my motivation: it is undeniable that the USB was at the time, with one exception, led by competent and rigorous trade unionists, but closed to any divergent current of thought; at the helm of the union for a long time, they made the mistake of not allowing others a space for ideas and debate, including the right to be wrong. I sincerely hope that our Brussels organization is more open today.

I played a major role in the creation of USHU as the USF section representing foreign service delegations. This operation also ended in failure for USF, since USHU subsequently left our federation, but I remain convinced that the creation of a specific section was the right thing to do and that its departure from USF, due to quarrels and personal ambitions, could have been avoided. From a feminist point of view, the failure is even more stinging, since the operation was carried out by a woman whom I had trusted and who “betrayed” USF: confirmation of the equality of men and women in their capacity for dirty tricks.

I can only hope, particularly in the current context of social upheaval, that the leaders of USF, USB, Unité syndicale and USHU will be able to come together and unite, while respecting their autonomy and differences.

As President, I did everything in my power to help create USF-Luxembourg, when the behavior of what was then US-Luxembourg was becoming intolerable within USF. This time it was a success, and I’m very proud of it, even if most of the effort was of course made by our colleagues in Luxembourg, led by Nicolas Mavraganis. The fact that Nicolas is now President of USF is, in my view, proof that our union has overcome the irritating historical rivalry between Brussels and Luxembourg.

Even before my presidency, the small sections of the Research sector were already experiencing some difficulties, due to the gradual reduction of staff in the research centres and competition from other unions, and unfortunately, USF could do nothing about these external factors.

Finally, I tried to ensure as effective a link as possible between the “historic centre” of USF and its “periphery”: the agencies and non-EU organizations.

The “other” organizations, such as the CDE and EPO, had union sections strong enough to live independently: “defending” them was, in fact, more a matter of keeping their place within USF. Because of USF’s “Brussels-centrism”, federal meetings were too often devoted exclusively to central EU issues, and this situation was repeatedly criticized by colleagues who doubted the added value of travelling to Brussels or elsewhere to hear about problems they felt didn’t concern them. I endeavoured to restore a certain balance to the agendas so that all organizations could make their voices heard and obtain the support they required.

It has never been easy to organize union representation in agencies, where managers have an unfortunate tendency to believe they have a divine right, and where staff are weakened by the temporary nature of contracts, with a few historical exceptions. It’s no coincidence, of course, that the last few decades have seen a proliferation of agencies, including the new type known as “executive agencies”, which don’t seem to have escaped the managerial excesses of their older cousins. Among other considerations, the fact that they can employ non-civil servant staff is an undeniable advantage for managers, and a major handicap for the union struggle.

For the agencies, regular visits from USF and close liaison with the centre are essential to union action, which local sections do not necessarily have the resources to carry out alone. This is why, at the end of my term as President, the USF Board decided to appoint a “special agencies representative”, whose mission was to ensure more effective communication and support for the regulatory agencies, since the executive agencies should logically find their natural place and support within the USB itself. I sincerely hope that the person who now occupies this position will be able to devote himself or herself tirelessly to this sometimes thankless mission, which is nonetheless essential to ensure the cohesion of our federation and a lively union representation in the most complicated organizations in this respect.

Sylvie Jacobs (left) at the Federal Bureau meeting in Florence, March 2005

In short, my record for the women’s cause? Inexistent, apart from my constant action in favor of equal opportunities for all. I’d like to take this opportunity to express my old-fashioned concern about certain distressing trends in society which, by dint of highlighting a particular (pseudo) cause, are creating new divisions between human groups, as if burdening the former dominant groups didn’t have the effect, instead of eliminating all relations of domination, of simply reversing the roles by perpetuating this mode of social functioning.

I became president of USF at a time when the greatest statutory battles had already been fought. Victories and failures had already been won, and the aim was to defend the correct and humane application of the rules as best we could. I can therefore boast no remarkable feats of arms, and I consider that my most exciting period of union activity was not my presidency, but the years of major negotiations before that.

During my 4 years at the helm of USF, a change in union representation and social dialogue has been underway since 2004. The tragic weakening of union representation is of course linked to a variety of factors, and has simply followed the evolution of national social struggles.

I won’t go into an analysis of the causes – everyone can do that in their own way – but I would like to say a few words about my personal vision. The atomization of society, where the glorification of the individual serves, in short, only to better subjugate him or her to the goodwill of the boss by dangling a hypothetical personal success while forgetting the strength of solidarity, the progressive dismantling of public services as symbols of the solidarity of nations, the subjugation of national and community policies to the economic interests of a few individuals, are decisive factors in the organized death of the trade union movement. The European institutions and the trade unions that operate within them are no exception to this general trend.

The future of the European Union is not certain. It is not certain that people will accept the dissolution of their national identities and the loss of their autonomy to a superstructure without even the appearance of democracy, which today seems entirely devoted to trade and the enrichment of the rich. And the institutions’ human resources are following the same downward curve as those of the national public services.

The question is whether the unions can only accompany this descent into hell, or whether there will be a decisive moment when the movement is reversed in favour of collective struggles. I don’t have an answer to that question. But when you’re a trade unionist, you don’t believe in fatality.

Evere, February 10, 2024

Sylvie Jacobs

About The Author

President of USF period 2009 – 2015